‘Anne with an E’: Netflix’s Rich, Whimsical Gem Finds Modern Relevance in Season 2

     July 13, 2018

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Though I’ve finished all 10 episodes of Season 2, I’ll keep things spoiler-free for those who haven’t yet started (or finished) the journey!

As a diehard Anne of Green Gables fan, I wasn’t totally convinced by the first season of Netflix’s adaptation, Anne with an E, from creator Moira Walley-Beckett. Windswept and full of gorgeous landscapes and costuming, the series felt like it was too focused on the grit of life rather than the wonder of it — the latter of which the character of Anne Shirley has always been known for embracing. The plainest moment can be made beautiful through her flowery descriptions, as the former orphan gleefully embraces of her new surroundings.

The first season of Anne ended up growing on me, but I was still a little disappointed in its preference for dark moments instead of dramatic triumphs. Season 2, however, has a major shift in tone. The whimsy of Anne (Amybeth McNulty) and her adventures with Diana (Dalila Bela), Ruby (Kyla Matthews), Gilbert (Lucas Jade Zumann), and others, is back in full force. When I reviewed Season 1, I opined that the show was good on its own, but only fair as an Anne adaptation. It’s fitting, then, that as Season 2 moves away from the books and expands the world, it also moves towards excellence. Anne with an E is now, aside from a few narrative touchstones, operating on its own terms, and doing so with joyous (and often very funny) aplomb.

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Image via Netflix

One of the biggest shifts from the novels is the inclusion of a black character, Bash (Dalmar Abuzeid), who Gilbert meets on the steamer when he takes his grand adventure down the East Coast to the Caribbean. Gilbert experiencing life in Trinidad is a little clunky, though cute, but the better storylines come when Bash returns to Prince Edward Island with Gilbert as both his friend and his family. While most folks in Avonlea are polite, if a bit shocked, the show allows those tensions to simmer until Bash himself wants to seek out a community other black citizens in a place called “The Bog,” where they are also marginalized. It’s a complex storyline, and what makes it even better is that Bash’s story soon becomes his own, and not just part of Gilbert’s. Anne with an E makes space to tell Bash’s narrative from his own point of view — throughout the season instead of in just a single episode — which is essential.

That same pioneering spirit is present in the creation of another new character, Cole (Cory Gruter-Andrew), a sensitive spirit with an artistic streak who is bullied at school for being too feminine. His friendship with Anne is a special one, but again, his story also becomes his own, especially after he, Anne, and Diana make a visit to a memorably liberal party at her Aunt Josephine’s (Deborah Grover) house. There, the bohemian lifestyles of the early 20th century enchant the young islanders (or confuse them, in Diana’s case), particularly Cole, who finally sees a way he can be himself. The revelations here are never shoehorned, which is important, and Cole’s journey takes an entire season to play out. While part of the magic of Anne with an E is reveling in its simple agrarian society, the show is wise to not get lost there. The early 20th century was a time of rapid societal and technological change, which Avonlea would not have been completely removed from.

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Image via Netflix

These modern flourishes also have some basis in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s work, particularly in the character of Miss Stacy (Joanna Douglas), an unorthodox school teacher the children come to love. Though the show makes her especially progressive, it also makes sense given that she represents both city life and change. There are many moments in Anne with an E that can feel anachronistic in terms of acceptance or the behavior of that day, but the show is also not a historical documentary. It’s about a whimsical 14 year old girl and the fanciful stories she conjures. Anne always tries to see the best in people and in circumstances, so why shouldn’t the show? And who’s to say it isn’t rooted in truth?

Not everything is rosy, of course. The grifters living as borders at Green Gables run out their scheme to the detriment of the town, although there’s good that comes from that ultimately as well. There is also some very mean-spirited taunting, not just of Cole, but of Anne and some of the other children, which is likely to give everyone who went through junior high school a little dash of PTSD. While all of that behavior is as old as humanity itself, or perhaps because of that fact, it has a very modern resonance to it. That permeates throughout, including when Anne is teased for looking like a boy when she has to cut off her hair after a dye job gone wrong; she ends up pretending to be a boy in town all day, and appreciates the freedom. But then she lusts after a pretty dress in the window, illustrating that definitions aren’t important, but experiences are. In another example, when the girls play make-believe together, Diana is often in the role of Prince Wisteria, who plants a kiss on the cheek of her (female) beau. It’s all part of the freedom and fluidity of childhood, something the show expresses particularly well.

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Image via Netflix

What’s truly timeless about Anne with an E, though, are the lessons Anne learns as she grows up, including meddling in the affairs of others (particularly Matthew, played soulfully by R.H. Thompson). Her relationship with Marilla (Geraldine James) is much better than it was in the first season, as both siblings now look upon Anne with rueful delight mixed with exasperation. Anne has love, both at home and in her friendships, and it allows the story to have more freedom in detailing some of the hijinks of adolescent life (alongside a few of the adults in town and the lessons they also need to learn). After school, there are some flirtations and many discussions of the perfect kiss, but there are also heartache and one particularly interesting and complicated foil to Cole’s story with a character who cannot come to terms with who he really is.

Anne with an E explores all of this with a full heart, allowing even the most odious characters moments of empathy from viewers, yet in a way that never seeks to excuse their behavior. In that same way, Anne herself can sometimes be extraordinarily irritating, as 14 year old girls often are, and it’s both believable and ultimately charming. More than anything, the series does an exceptional job creating a deeply relatable mood and aesthetic, one that makes both the perils and precious moments of growing up feel as raw and real as they do in real life. The new season is full of triumphant moments and joyous subplots, as well as scenes of sorrow and hardship. It all adds up to an uplifting season that concludes with Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, and all those around her, looking towards the scope of possibilities in an ever-widening world.

Anne with an E Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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